Iraq’s Political Impasse Raises Drawdown Concerns

Iraq’s failure to form a government four months after elections prompted concern in the U.S. Congress as senators heard from President Barack Obama’s nominee to be his next envoy to the Persian Gulf nation.

“It’s not clear whether a resolution is days, weeks or months away,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said during a hearing in Washington yesterday to consider James Jeffrey’s nomination as ambassador. Jeffrey currently is the ambassador to Turkey.

The delay reflects unresolved issues of how to distribute oil revenue and divide power among the country’s ethnic groups, lawmakers and the nominee said. It also raises the risks and costs of the planned U.S. military drawdown, they said.

While security and services such as water, electricity, health care and education have improved, longer-term prospects remain uncertain, said Jeffrey, who previously was a deputy at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“All these things are showing positive indicators,” Jeffrey told the committee. “We don’t know at this point how sustainable this will be.”

Iraq’s goal of doubling oil production will require “rapid deployment” of the contracts that have been signed and a ramp-up of Iraq’s own investments to support the sector, the nominee said.

“That might be a bit ambitious,” Jeffrey said. Still, he said he expects to see “very extensive growth” in Iraqi oil production. Iraq holds the world’s third-largest oil reserves.

Military Advisers

Jeffrey would replace Ambassador Christopher Hill as the U.S. military completes the withdrawal of its combat forces by the end of August. That will leave 50,000 troops to advise and assist their Iraqi counterparts, while the State Department seeks to train thousands of Iraqi police to maintain order.

“The uncertain political situation creates risks for our transition plans,” said Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the committee. “Our military has been involved in areas of governance far beyond security, and turning over those critical responsibilities will be challenging.”

The U.S. plans to maintain 5,000 diplomats and civilian advisers working with the Iraqi government and nonprofit groups, Lugar said. He also cited a request from the State Department for more than $800 million to start a police mentoring and training program with 350 advisers.

The State Department may need as many as 7,000 contract security personnel to provide protection as the U.S. military departs, he said.

‘Unprecedented Operation’

“It is important that the administration flesh out how all the pieces of this unprecedented operation will fit together in Iraq as American troops depart,” Lugar said.

Iraq fell into a political stalemate following elections on March 7 that failed to give any group a ruling majority in the 325-seat assembly. The country’s political leaders have been competing for allies to form a governing coalition.

Iraqi officials including National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie have warned that the political vacuum is encouraging militants.

At least four people were killed in a car bombing in Baquba yesterday, the independent Aswat Iraqi news agency reported. That followed three bombings on July 18 that killed 44 people.

Odierno’s Perspective

General Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he’s confident Iraq’s political leaders will form a government, possibly in August or perhaps later. He said he’d be more concerned if October rolls around without an agreement.

“There’s uneasiness in Iraq because of how long it’s taking,” Odierno told reporters at the Pentagon today. “But there’s not been any degradation of security and stability.”

Jeffrey has spent 43 years in military or diplomatic service. Prior to becoming ambassador to Turkey in 2008, he served in the Bush administration as a deputy national security adviser and as a special adviser on Iraq to the secretary of state.

Hill, previously a U.S. negotiator on Bosnia and then North Korea, arrived in Baghdad in April 2009 after overcoming criticism during his confirmation that he lacked experience in the Middle East.

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